Thai protesters using emoticons, retweets to stay ahead of police

BANGKOK • In Thailand's democracy, emoticons and retweets are becoming the new ballots.

Protest organisers on Monday asked supporters on Facebook whether they should hold rallies that evening: The "Care" emoticon signalled "rest for one day", while the "Wow" emoticon was a vote to "keep going". The majority on Facebook chose to continue the protests.

A similar poll was done on Twitter, using like and retweet buttons for the vote.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Telegram have emerged as the backbone of the youth-led movement posing an unprecedented challenge to King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Thailand's royalist establishment.

Mirroring the "Be Water" tactics mastered by protesters in Hong Kong last year, the decentralised movement in Thailand is using online forums to ask supporters to vote on when and where to rally - sometimes choosing multiple locations at once.

The moves have kept the police off balance. The authorities last week shut down parts of Bangkok and some mass transit stations in an unsuccessful bid to stop protesters from gathering.

They have now held rallies each day since Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha issued an emergency decree to ban large gatherings. And while police have arrested more than 70 people, including prominent leaders, others are lined up to take their place as protesters push for Mr Prayut's resignation, a more democratic Constitution and more accountability for a monarchy that holds more power and wealth than any institution in Thailand.

"We're already creating a headache for the government just by doing leaderless rallies to show them that people are against them," said protest organiser Arthitaya Pornprom. "We're showing them that even though the leaders are gone, the movement continues. Everybody's a leader."

Last Friday, protesters used social media to gather at a new location within an hour after police thwarted their initial plans. Since then, they have been regularly popping up at various locations for a short period of time before dispersing quickly to avoid crackdowns.

Although Thailand has long dealt with street protests, these tactics are all new in Bangkok.

In previous years, police had to contend with demonstrators backed by major political figures who occupied streets or strategic locations like the international airport for days or weeks.

Now the movement is based in cyberspace and the authorities are struggling to stop it.

Any ban on platforms such as Facebook would upset more than 50 million active users in Thailand - equivalent to more than 70 per cent of the population - who use social media to chat, shop as well as follow current events.

Past government threats to take legal action against social media giants have not materialised, even though some posts and pages have been removed or blocked.

"The government has found it hard to suppress this kind of leaderless, cyber-organising movement," said Dr David Streckfuss, a scholar of South-east Asian politics and an author of a book on Thailand's lese majeste laws. "They could shut down social media... but it'll come at a price.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2020, with the headline Thai protesters using emoticons, retweets to stay ahead of police. Subscribe